‘Flamingo & Decatur’ places its bets on Vegas, and wins

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Nathaniel Stahlke (from left), Jason M. Shipman and Stephanie Bignault in Block St Theatre Co’s world premiere of “Flamingo & Decatur.” | Evan Hanover

Casinos, and their natural correlative, pawn shops. Grand-scale hotels with mock versions of Europe and lavish restaurants. Cirque du Soleil spectacles. And, more recently, a horrific episode of gun violence.

‘FLAMINGO & DECATUR’ Recommended When: Through Feb. 18 Where: Block St Theatre Co at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Tickets: $33 Info: www.theaterwit.org Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission

The 21st century incarnation of Las Vegas needs no further description. But that is “the tourist version” of the place. What is often neglected is the desert city’s long-term residents — the people who live and work there, the compulsive gamblers who lose their shirts there (yet continue to keep hope alive for the next poker game), and the ordinary home owners whose real estate values plummeted in the wake of the 2008 recession.

In “Flamingo & Decatur,” a most winning tragicomedy of Vegas manners, Todd Taylor (a former sports writer and poker pro turned playwright), homes in on all those generally unexamined aspects of the fabled city. His play is now receiving a sharply acted world-premiere production at Theater Wit courtesy of the Block St Theatre Co — a group of University of Arkansas graduates with MFAs in theater and extensive professional credits whose goal is to “build a bridge between Fayetteville and Chicago.” And under the shrewd direction of Kevin Christopher Fox (a veteran Chicago-based actor-director), both the play, with its echoes of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” and the company, deserve a big welcome mat.

Jason M. Shipman (left) and Nathaniel Stahlke in Block St Theatre Co’s world premiere of “Flamingo & Decatur.” | Evan Hanover

Jason M. Shipman (left) and Nathaniel Stahlke in Block St Theatre Co’s world premiere of “Flamingo & Decatur.” | Evan Hanover

The story unfolds in the back yard of a Vegas house inhabited by two friends and full-time compulsive gamblers — Jackson (Jason M. Shipman, who makes desperation and compulsion palpable), and Ben (Drew Johnson, the ideal counterweight to Jackson).

The house is actually a foreclosed property in which the down-on-their-luck guys are living as squatters, and early on, Jackson is confronted (and more or less blackmailed) by his very annoying but perceptive neighbor, Simon (the deceptively nerdy Nathaniel Stahlke). To help allay their lack of “hush money,” the two rent out a room to a top-notch croupier, Nicole (whip-smart Stephanie Bignault, who easily lives up to her description as “a looker”), with whom Jackson falls in love, probably for the first time in his life.

Will Jackson stick to a major wager that requires him to maintain a strict vegan, alcohol-free diet? Will a sudden ban on online sports betting ruin any hope of a windfall? What kinds of transformations will take place in these four people who live and breathe for the thrill of beating the odds, or, in the case of the finicky Simon, finessing a deal? Who are the winners? Who are the losers?

Throughout, Taylor ups the ante in many clever ways, and keeps the terminology of gambling authentic yet easily comprehensible. More crucially, he captures the fever of the quest to “get lucky,” or better yet, as Jackson puts it, to “not be unlucky.”

Jason M. Shipman and Drew Johnson star in “Flamingo & Decatur.” | Evan Hanover

Jason M. Shipman and Drew Johnson star in “Flamingo & Decatur.” | Evan Hanover

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